Back in July, I had some rather harsh things to say about the Clandestine Classics approach to, well, the classics--the works of the Brontes, for instance. "The old fashioned pleasantries and timidity have all been stripped away, quite literally," the website breathlessly informs us. "You didn’t really think that these much loved characters only held hands and pecked cheeks did you?" One is tempted to suggest that for those of us who have actually read the books in question, the answer to that question is...no, we didn't, actually. But let's be fair: in July, I had not yet read any of these "erotic romances." And surely it is unfair to judge a book on the basis of its promotional material.
However, I am no longer in such a state of blessed innocence, having subjected myself to their purportedly new, improved, and sexed-up version of Jane Eyre. Much sadness ensued, which I wound up chronicling live on Twitter (see the Storified version). Some of the sadness resulted from the publisher's bizarre insistence on randomly replacing semi-colons and dashes with commas, with unfortunate consequences for the grammar; I also caught at least one sentence divided into two, and there may be more. However, the sadness primarily derived from the most libido-killing prose I've encountered in quite some time. It's as though the "co-author" thought sex scenes should aspire to the state of IKEA Erotica. Worse still, the co-author makes almost no effort to rework the rest of the novel around the new material, which has the unintentional (I hope) result of making the final product self-contradictory at best, sometimes outright hilarious at worst.
The new sexual subplot features our Jane converting to sadomasochism, thanks to Rochester strategically leaving a book of porn around that fills Jane's mind with "wild imaginings" (loc. 3563)--that is, after about five seconds of being "shocked" (loc. 3548). In an example of the new material's originality, Jane promptly finds herself "so hot as to feel fevered" (loc. 3682) around Mr. R. (This is the sort of novel in which women undergo "torrid throbbings of desire" [loc. 6830] and enjoy "soul-shaking" kisses [loc. 6574].) But that's nowhere near as exciting as Jane's discovery of a "smooth, wooden pole of sorts" (loc. 5278) in one of Rochester's drawers, which Rochester intentionally sends her to find while he's attempting to dispatch Mr. Mason. That Rochester presumably has other things to worry about at the time does not deter our co-author; it would appear that no matter what severe psychological distress he may be experiencing, Rochester is always prepared to work on seducing the governess. By having her find random dildos. To which she responds with remarkably little unease. Anyway, after escorting Mason out the door and having a serious conversation about God, redemption, and "regeneration" with our little Jane, Rochester then brings up the aforementioned book of porn--and Jane explains, with surprising chipperness, that the book has prompted her to (ahem) "solo exploration" (loc. 5509). Oh, and then they have sadomasochistic sex, even though an explicit sex scene is about the last thing one would expect to follow from a serious discussion of Christian duty. Apparently, however, one is wrong. Readers will be reassured to hear that this is very modern sadomasochistic sex: "What I offer you is the most glorious of all freedoms, the opportunity to always be at choice, to accept my instructions or deny completely—thus you are the one with the upper hand" (loc. 5583-84). (Readers will also be glad to know that Rochester practices safe sex.) Clunky prose aside, here we have Jane-the-submissive being reassured that she will really be in charge--although, as it turns out, Jane will never bother using a safeword while she and Rochester are going at it, as she has an unlimited thirst for being walloped and "impaled."
This sex scene and the ones that follow it all bear a dreary resemblance to one another. It's as though the writer had a set of 3x5 cards, like so:
- RANDOM SYNONYM FOR GENITALIA
- RANDOM SYNONYM FOR ORGASM
Take the cards, shuffle them, and lo! Sex scene. Sex scenes all repeatedly undercut by moments of unintentional comedy. "You have a lovely bottom, Miss Eyre," Rochester dreamily informs our heroine, a giggle-inducing compliment made even worse by Jane's response: "I didn’t know quite what to say. My manners deserted me" (loc. 5660). Trust Jane to be thinking of etiquette while being ravished, I suppose. (I'd like to think that was intentionally funny, but given the rest of the novel...) The co-author appears to have some vague notion of the sort of purple prose one finds in vintage Victorian erotica, which she mingles pell-mell with her otherwise plain style; it's hard to know what to do (other than laugh) when Rochester suddenly asks Jane about "'the scald of your womanly heat'" (loc. 6999) or, even worse, when Jane seriously inquires, "'Did you spill your seed, sir?'" (loc. 9187)--that last because presumably she'll have to go find a mop if he did. Putting to one side the erotics of flagellation, the sex sometimes feels as if it's lasting forever, and not in a good way. Matters are worst in the famous marriage proposal/horse-chestnut tree scene, when Rochester does the spanking thing, does it again, proposes marriage, and then breaks out a condom so that they can have sex a third time. Really, less can be more. By that point, the weary reader is desperately wishing for a lightning strike to blast the entire novel to bits, not just the horse-chestnut.
Now, taken by itself, this is all just terrible fanfiction. But the co-author has made virtually no changes to the rest of the text, which means that Jane is cheerfully having rampant, out-of-wedlock sadomasochistic sex on one page and then spouting serious Christian truths about the need for self-control several pages later--without even registering the contradictions. In fact, although Jane effectively turns into one of Rochester's former opera-dancer girlfriends, there's been no change to the text in which she warns herself against becoming...one of Rochester's former opera-dancer girlfriends. (The women with whom Rochester previously had sex? And then dumped? Remember them?) There is no sign at all that the co-author even begins to register that a devout nineteenth-century fictional Christian like Jane, no matter how willing to hear Mr. Rochester reminisce about former mistresses, might balk at doing the dirty outside the bonds (sorry) of marriage. Yes, in real life there were no doubt Christians willing to announce that "[n]o guilt did I feel over my scandalous—as some might say—behaviour—for I had offered everything to this man, my heart as well as my body" (loc. 7258-59), even though the sentiments are suspiciously twenty-first century. There is nothing in Jane Eyre, however, to suggest that Jane, no matter how invested in the importance of conscience, would ever let herself off so easily. After all, this version still has the passage in which Jane resists Rochester's entreaties by calling on divine law: "I will keep the law given by God, sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now" (loc. 9939-40). Jane's conscience may be an internal monitor, but Biblical law shapes it; the reason she can propose to St. John Rivers that they go off unmarried to work in India is that there will be no sex involved, and therefore nothing to violate her conscience (no matter how things will look). This version's sex scenes, far from illuminating the text or filling in a gap, jar harshly against the rest of the narrative.
There's one more point I'd like to make. This series' selling point, such as it is, is that classic nineteenth-century literature is so sexless, so chaste, so prim. Add some sex! Make it interesting! But aside from the fact that this claim actually isn't true (I'll just have to keep repeating myself here), the novels in the Clandestine Classics series already have eager readers. My students adore Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, even the ones who are initially suspicious. People still avidly read Sherlock Holmes.* The world gets along just fine without ineptly-written sex scenes dumped carelessly into carefully-constructed plots.
*--Incidentally, I see that CC has had to rename Holmes and Watson (and the book can't be sold in the USA, which is such a relief shame). Did the Doyle estate raise a ruckus?